A Theology of the Third Person of the Trinity

A Theology of the Third Person of the Trinity

1. A Long and Difficult History

A theology of the Holy Spirit and, in more general terms, a theology of Christ and of the tri-unity of God, took a long time to develop. There was no model to follow. The chapter was blank and yet, in a sense, its contents were already determined. Antiquity knew a broad diffusion of Stoicism, so widespread that it touched the class of ordinary people and even the world of slaves. And Stoicism envisaged a divine Breath animating the world but saw it as an element of this world itself. It tended to see the Word or Wisdom of God, and then God’s Breath-Spirit (Pneuma), as means of creation, as simple intermediaries between God and nature, immanent in this nature. It is not surprising that some Christians, applying all their resources to express the facts of the history of salvation—the intervention and gift of the Spirit; the incarnation of the Word in Jesus—saw the Word and the Spirit either as the first links or intermediaries of creation or, at best, simply as modalities through which a creative and provident God acts. The history of Christian doctrine puts labels on these attempts, using abstract names to designate erroneous doctrines condemned as heresies, and concrete names to designate those persons who held and set forth these teachings. Beginning at the end of the first century, there was the monarchianism of Cerinthus, inspired by Jewish monotheism, and, at the end of the second century that of Theodore [or Theodotus] the Tanner/Cobbler. In the third century, there was Paul of Samosata’s adoptionism: Christ was simply a man adopted as son of God at his baptism . . . Then, in the middle of the third century, there was Sabellius who embraced modalism and was condemned in Rome. Father, Word, Spirit were only the modes through which one unique Subject was manifested. Then, just when the Church’s peace had been proclaimed by Constantine, Arius appeared. He was a priest in Alexandria who saw the Son as intermediary between the Father and creation. Athanasius rose up against him. His unwavering defense of the Faith defined in the Council of Nicaea (325)—the Son is of the same substance as the Father—cost him five exiles.

But a false idea analogous to that of Arianism was expressed in the middle of the fourth century by Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople, and those called the pneumatomachi [Spirit fighters], who were opposed to the Holy Spirit. St. Basil the Great led the same sort of battle against them as St. Athanasius had led against Arius and before that against those who were calling into question the divinity of the Spirit: if the Spirit is not God, how can we be divinized? Basil wrote his treatise On the Holy Spirit in 375. We should, he says, praise (pray) as we believe, and believe as we have been baptized. Out of consideration for the pneumatomachi, and to facilitate their return to true doctrine, Basil avoids calling the Spirit “God” and expressing the Spirit’s consubstantiality with the Father and the Son. The Council of Constantinople of 381 would do the same. It would be content to say (and these are the words of the Creed which we still recite), “(I believe) in the Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father. With the Father and the Son he is the object of the same adoration and the same glory. He has spoken through the prophets.” This was equivalent to affirming the Spirit’s divinity. But let us note here a fact emphasized by various authors: the people of God think what they live; their doctrine flows from this life and, at the same time, it protects and directs it. This happens in such a way that, as a text attributed to Pope Celestine I (†432) says, the rule of worship and of prayer indicates the rule of belief (DS 246). This is not another version of the modernist position of Georges Tyrrell. For him Christianity was only a spiritual experience, theology being something built upon it. This approach neglects the fact that there exists, from the start, a Revelation made in words and in texts, which inspires and regulates practice. The two realities are interconnected. While the faithful have contact with Revelation through and in the practice of Christianity (the liturgy, among other things), the practice depends first of all on Revelation. One ought neither to confuse nor to separate the two.

2. Three Who Are One

The Holy Spirit is God. God is, in the unity of one same “substance” (= a concrete reality having its own existence), Father, Son, and Spirit. There is no point here in raising an objection because of being scandalized that one equals three or that three are one. No mathematician would be shocked by this because he or she knows that one cannot add to the infinite. To speak of three “Persons” introduces a distinction, but it does not introduce plurality into God.

The Fathers of the Church explained this. Not too long ago, a Soviet (Ukrainian) mathematician reminded us of this:

The mockeries which Tolstoy heaps on the Holy Trinity illustrate vividly his rationalism. Any peasant, he says, knows that one cannot be equal to three; consequently, the dogma of the Holy Trinity is absurd and aims only at stupefying the faithful.

As a mathematician I knew one thing very well: the assertion that the part is smaller than the whole is valid only for finite quantities. For infinite quantities, this statement has no validity; the part can be equal to the whole. And upon reading a Soviet historian of Christianity, I became aware that the formulator of the theory of large numbers, Kantor, had begun his study precisely in reflecting upon the problem of the equivalence between one hypostasis of God and three . . . .

This existence of the Three adorable Ones in One unique Adorable is for Christians a fundamental element of faith, that of their baptism “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This triple and unique confession accompanies a triple immersion or infusion (sprinkling), and accomplishes one single baptism, since the Three are one single God. The liturgy does not celebrate the divine Persons separately. There is no feast of the Father; Christmas is not the feast of the Son, but the celebration of the fact of his birth into our world; Pentecost is not a feast of the Holy Spirit, but a celebration of the fact of the Spirit’s being sent in a tangible way to the first disciples.

To make the Trinitarian mystery meaningful to our minds, various images have been proposed. One of the most common is that of the sun, its light, and its warmth. These three suns are perfectly congruent. Another image is the spring, the river, and the sea—a comparison dear to the Greek Fathers. Still another is the thought, the word, and the breath. Or again, the root, the branch, and the fruit. These are obviously very imperfect images and ones whose adequacy must be denied even as they are being proposed.

If we are made in the image of God, it is legitimate to make cautious use of the elements most essential to our deepest being to express and construct intellectually—that is what theology does—the mystery of God, One and Three. A saintly priest, to whom ecumenism owes much, Fr. Paul Couturier, used to say, “The absolute One of infinite Being, presents itself, precisely because of that infinity, as a Trinity of Persons who exhaust the possibilities of the relation of the Infinite with Itself.” In the West, some great religious geniuses have taken the risk of constructing a Trinitarian theology by making use of the essential moments of life or immanent self-generativity, whether of the mind, or of love. For God is spirit (Jn 4:24)5 and light, but also “God is Love” (St. John, 1 John 4:8). St. Augustine, St. Anselm (†1109), St. Thomas Aquinas, and, among the Orthodox, Father Sergei Bulgakov have preferred to follow the analogy of the mind; Richard of Saint Victor (†1172), St. Bonaventure (†1274) and, among us, in an original manner, Father Louis Bouyer, have followed the theme of love. Here I do not have to propose a theology of the Trinity as such. My concern is only the Holy Spirit.

3. Three “Persons”?

It is true that, in Scripture and also in Christian experience, the Spirit sometimes appears more like a force or a dynamism than like a “person.” There is thus something like a self-effacement of the Holy Spirit behind the fruit produced by the Spirit. Some have spoken of the Spirit’s “kenosis.” However, “were the Spirit not confessed as a Person in the same sense as the Father and the Son, something would indeed be lacking in our faith. Yet our faith thus finds itself up against a barrier because the countenance of the Spirit is intentionally concealed from us and the Spirit avoids meeting us face to face. As for the images which allow us to think and to speak of the Holy Spirit and to delight in being subject to the Spirit, they have the drawback of not connoting a person.” There are the images of powerful action (wind, fire, flowing water), but also the image of a bird that flies and hovers. In St. Paul, however, there are a number of three-membered formulas—someone has counted forty-seven of them—of which a certain number are genuinely Trinitarian. One of the most eloquent statements is that one by which we so often open our Eucharistic celebrations and which creates the sacred space within which those celebrations unfold: “The grace of Jesus Christ, the Love of God (the Father), and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:13). In several statements, the Spirit appears as the subject of acts concerning our spiritual life: the Spirit attests that we are children of God, the Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness, the Spirit intercedes for us (Rom 8:16, 26, 27). In St. John, the Spirit is “another Paraclete” (14:16) as Jesus had been and continues to be (1 John 2:1); the Spirit teaches us (John 14:26). We can “grieve” the Spirit (Eph 4:30). We can address the Spirit as one person addresses another by saying “thou.” The Spirit, says the Creed, is adored and glorified with the Father and the Son.

Let us recognize, however, that even if the characterization of the Spirit as “person” has the advantage of going beyond the idea of an impersonal dynamism, doing so raises some questions. Already St. Augustine acknowledges that he uses the word “person” not so much to say something as to avoid saying nothing, and St. Anselm used to say, “tres nescio quid,” “three of I know not what.” The Middle Ages found itself faced with several definitions of the person. Boethius († c. 525) said a person was an “individual substance of a rational nature.” That united the values of a spiritual and intelligent nature, a separate existence and a distinct individuality: a being which exists by itself, distinct from others. It was very metaphysical, not very “personalist.” So Richard of Saint-Victor critiqued it around 1170, and substituted for it this formula: “a being existing by itself alone, according to a certain mode of rational existence.” The accent is more personalist. The person, said Richard, is not a quid, a something, but a quis, someone. That permits Richard to develop his whole Trinitarian theology in the key of Love. Thomas Aquinas would follow Boethius, adding elements from Richard to complete his understanding of the person.

Modern thought, however, has developed still further and enriched the personalist emphasis. Anton Günther (†1863) had already identified “person” with Selbstbewusstsein, self-consciousness. This had the drawback of suggesting three centers of consciousness in God, and, therefore, of bordering on tritheism. However, it is indeed by consciousness and autonomy that modern thought characterizes the person, an autonomous subject of consciousness and accountability. A number of contemporary presentations apply interpersonal psychology to the Persons of the Trinity. The idea of relation to the other, which this implies, seems particularly appropriate to the divine Persons. But sometimes this approach inclines toward a simplistic anthropomorphism, if not an unconscious tritheism: the divine Persons speak to one another and love one another in the manner of individual autonomous persons.

This is why Karl Rahner proposed not to abandon the term “person,” which had for him the authority of the strongest tradition, but to speak, in theology, of Subzistensweise, “modes of subsistence.” In this way, the notion of “person” is explained in a manner which avoids postulating three centers of consciousness, three loves, three centers of immanent operation. And this is not “modalism,” for which there are only three roles and three names of one single person. Certainly, this approach is not satisfactory from all perspectives. Let us cite, however, as a possible antecedent, these terms from the Lateran Council of 649, presided over by Pope St. Martin I and in which St. Maximus the Confessor participated (both of them martyrs of the true faith): “Unum Deum in tribus subsistentiis consubstantialibus (One single God in three consubstantial substances).” This is an excellent formula, but rather technical. It means that, in the unity of the divine Substance (only one God!), three moments of being exist, three distinct, original and specific ways of being Who God is. God, absolute spirit, exists in a threefold way: as Source and radical existence, as self-knowledge and self-expression, and as self-love.

This introduces neither quantity, nor even plurality, into God because these notions can have no place in the infinite, the infinite ocean of being. But one can speak of an order (the Greeks say taxis). In this sense the Spirit is third. That does not mean that the Spirit comes after the others in the chronological sense. The Three are absolutely simultaneous, instantaneous, “consubstantial.” In so far as they are distinct “Persons,” they interpenetrate, exist, and live one in the other. This is what is called in Greek perichōrēsis, in Latin circumincessio. “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 10:38; 17:21). “Each one (of the divine Persons) is in each and all are in each, and each one is in all, and all are in all, and all make only one.” St. Gertrude (†1302) described one of her visions in this way: “Then the three Persons together radiated an admirable light, each seemed to cast its flame through the other and they were, however, all one with the other.”

4. The Spirit is fulfillment, the Gift that completes and perfects

Third in the substantial unity, the Spirit is the one who brings to completion God’s self-revelation and self-communication to God’s own creature made in God’s image. In the New Testament, the Spirit is designated as “the Promised One” beyond the coming and the gift of Christ/Son. And the Spirit is called par excellence the Gift. The Spirit is the ultimate Gift that perfects the other gifts. St. Irenaeus writes, “The Holy Spirit, the Gift that through the Son, the Father grants to human persons, brings to perfection everything that the Son possesses.” This perfecting, this consummation, is designated by different names: becoming a child of God, a member of God’s family, “divinization,” new creation, living eternal life or “life of the world to come.” These are the last words of the Creed. They conclude what the Protestants call the third article, that which concerns the Holy Spirit. For the Creed is Trinitarian. The whole of its last part sets forth the work attributed to the Spirit. It includes eschatology, the life of the world to come, of which we have the promise while possessing only the “first installment” of it (2 Cor 1:22, 5:5; Eph 1:14).

In all of this, the Christ/Son and the Spirit work together. Objects of two “missions,” they do the same work. But Christ himself executes it because, glorified, he is permeated by the Spirit: see 1 Cor 15:45; 2 Cor 3:17.

5. Two approaches to the mystery: East and West (Filioque)

It is common knowledge that on the question of the Holy Spirit—more precisely, on the Spirit’s eternal outpouring in God (the Spirit’s “procession”)—a controversy exists between the Orthodox East and Catholicism, whose positions were formulated in the West. Catholics say “who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” They have said this since the fourth and fifth centuries (St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Leo) and on the basis of numerous councils held in the West in the sixth and seventh centuries. For a long period the Latin part of the Church and its Greek part lived in communion, albeit with some periods when relations were less harmonious.

The East retained the words of Jesus in John 15:26: “who proceeds from the Father.” This is also what the Council of Constantinople (381), to which we owe our Creed, did. Its concern, its intention, was to take a step, in regard to the Spirit, similar to that which Nicaea had taken in regard to the Son in 325, namely, to affirm the divine character of the Spirit and—without using this word—to affirm the Spirit’s consubstantiality with the Father and the Son. Yet the Council said nothing specific about the Spirit’s eternal relation to the Son. The Greek Fathers did not reflect about this article as the Latins did. They did not specify the relation that the Spirit maintains with the Son in his eternal “going forth.” Several have, in this regard, formulas that suggest a positive relationship: the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son (St. Maximus, St. John of Damascus, Patriarch Tarasius); the Spirit comes from both (St. Cyril of Alexandria); the Spirit comes from the first, the Father, through the mediation of the one who comes immediately from the first, the Son (St. Gregory of Nyssa); the Spirit proceeds from the Father and receives from the Son (Syrian epicleses, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nyssa); the Spirit rests in the Son (Epiphanius, John of Damascus). . . . But the Greeks reserve strictly to the Father the quality of being first principle (archē) and cause (aitia). They insist on the “monarchy” of the Father. The Latins do this also, but without making the Father play exactly the same role, on account of the consubstantiality of the Son and the Spirit who proceed from the Father, the former by generation, the latter by ekporesis [ekporeusis], procession from the first principle.

What are the reasons for, what is the interest in, keeping the Filioque? St. Augustine invokes the fact that the New Testament speaks equally of the Spirit of the Father (Matt 10:28; John 15:26) and of the Spirit of the Son (Gal 4:6; see also Rom 8:9; Phil 1:19; he also refers to John 14:26, 20:22; Luke 6:19). The Spirit is therefore the Spirit of both; the Spirit is their mutual love. Augustine’s point of departure was the problem of how to harmonize the two affirmations that God is one and that God is three. Unity is expressed through absolute terms: wise, all-powerful, good, creator. Terms such as these do not distinguish the Persons. On the other hand, Father implies a relation to Son, as Son does to Father. The Persons are distinguished, therefore, by a relation, which is a relation of origin and owes its consistency or fullness of being to the fact that it expresses the communication of the divine substance precisely within that substantial unity. For the Holy Spirit the relation is: Giver-Gift, the Father and the Son being together the Giver, and “Gift” being a name of the Spirit, often designated thus in Scripture. The Spirit deserves this name even before actually being given—which presupposes the existence of creatures placed in time by a free act of God—for the Spirit is Generosity in God. The Spirit is the Love that proceeds from the Father and from the Son and that—if one may speak in such a human manner—goes beyond that face-to-face relation of the Father and the Son, of God and of his image, to give access to communication, to Gift, to Grace. The Gift will be effective only when there are creatures for whom this can be accomplished, but what we call the “economy” (the history of salvation) is only the expression, outside of God, of what exists in God. W. Kasper and H. Mühlen have said this better than I!

The theology of the “divine missions” establishes a connection, and even a continuity, between the free self-communication of God to creatures, the “economy,” and the intra-Trinitarian life. The Son is sent by the Father; the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. These missions or gifts are the expression, in creation, of the intradivine processions. This theology, which is found among the Fathers and is common to the great Scholastics, has been translated, by the contemporary theologians K. Barth and K. Rahner, in what Rahner calls a Grundaxiom, a fundamental axiom, namely: the economic Trinity, that which is revealed to us, is the immanent or intradivine Trinity, and vice versa. The concrete significance of this theology is well expressed by the Klingenthal report published by “Faith and Order”: “When we invoke God, we turn ourselves toward a God who is none other than the one who is revealed in his Word. . . . This living God from eternity to eternity has been, is, and will be the same as the one who is revealed throughout history.”The “umgekehrt,” the “vice versa,” of Rahner must, however, safeguard the freedom of the communication and the transcendence of the eternal Trinity with regard to its self-communication. It is not certain that this requirement is honored by all Trinitarian theologies, for example, that of Jürgen Moltmann. One cannot say that the eternal Trinity is nothing more than the Trinity revealed in the economy of grace.

In the economy of salvation, the Spirit is sent by the Son as well as by the Father. This fact is not the only basis for the Filioque, but it confirms and illustrates it. If the sending and the coming of the divine Persons are the expression, in our lives and our history, of their eternal procession, the sending and the coming of the Spirit imply the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son. Moreover, in the theological construction of the mystery, on the one hand, the Son has all that the Father has, except being Father. This is required by his perfect consubstantiality. On the other hand, the Persons are distinguished one from another by the opposition of their relations of origin: Father-Son, Giver-Gift. The Spirit, who proceeds from the Father, would not be hypostatically distinguished from the Son if there were not, between the Spirit and the Son, this relational opposition of procession.

The Orthodox reject this construction. They have another vision of the mystery that has its own internal coherence. According to them, the mode of procession from the Father suffices to distinguish the Son and the Spirit. The relations of origin certainly characterize the Persons but do not define them as such. And there exist among them relations other than the relations of origin: those of manifestation, of mutual hospitality. . . . The Orthodox find the Latin construction too rational. They judge also that it makes the Spirit depend upon the Word, upon Christ; that is why they say the West has drifted into what they call a “Christomonism” in which the Spirit is only a “vicar” of Christ and is not accorded a proper role in an ecclesiology of communion, an ecclesiology of a people who are, as a whole, priestly and active. A Christology not balanced by a full-fledged pneumatology results in a pyramidal and clerical vision of the Church. . . .

Even if we deserved this criticism in the past, the current direction of our Church’s life removes much of its pertinence. This criticism is also a little too simplistic and does not take into account other historical factors. But that is not the main point. The doctrinal question connected to the procession of the Holy Spirit is more fundamental. It also concerns the Protestant and Anglican churches, because they hold the procession ab utroque [from both], which has had no more determined a defender than Karl Barth. The issue was also on the agenda, first during the reconciliation negotiations between the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church at Nympha, near Chalcedon, in the thirteenth century and, above all, at the Council of Florence, where the question was seriously discussed and the union achieved, July 6, 1439, on the basis of the equivalence of the two phrases, “Filioque” and “per Filium” (“through the Son”), the latter being understood in the sense of the former. This was not entirely satisfactory. The question has been, for more than a century, on the agenda of various mixed conferences and, very recently, of a very interesting conference organized at Klingenthal, Alsace, by the “Faith and Order” Commission of the World Council of Churches, in 1978 and 1979. Concerning the procession of the Spirit, they have insisted on this: “The Spirit proceeds from the Father, but proceeds from him only insofar as the Father is (already) the Father of the Son.” “The existence of the second hypostasis is the prerequisite or the ‘condition’ for the existence of the third.” But above all, the dialogue shows that we must not focus exclusively on this phrase to which controversy has given a disproportionate emphasis. Concerning this point, however, let us keep to the position of John Paul II in his letter to Patriarch Dimitrios of March 25, 1981, and, finally, in his homily of Pentecost 1981: the text as it has come forth from the Council of 381 is normative; it possesses the highest degree of dogmatic authority; no “Filioquist” interpretation can counter it. But the theology of the Holy Spirit encompasses many aspects besides that of a dependence, in some sense linear, of the Spirit upon the Father-Son as Source. A Cartesian or geometric mentality tends to conceive of the Person of the Father entirely constituted before the actual generation of the Son; likewise, that of the Son as constituted before the spiration of the Spirit. Yet there is simultaneity in the same existence; the Persons do not exist one without the other, but one with and in the other, influencing one another mutually in the midst of the processions coming from the Father. Each hypostasis or divine Person lives a Trinitarian life. The contribution of Tradition and of the Orthodox theologians is, in this regard, very enriching.

There exists a whole Trinitarian life of the Persons with one another, within one another, in the unity of the divine substance, which is love. Furthermore, although not the “Son,” the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son. The Spirit brought to life in Mary a being who would be called Son of God; given to Christians, the Spirit is in them the source of their existence as children of God by grace (Rom 8:15–17; Gal 4:6). The Spirit extends to a multitude the benefits of what God has done and given to us in Jesus. The Spirit universalizes this unique accomplishment, which is the center and high point of history.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt from The Spirit of God: Short Writings on the Holy Spirit (52–67). Reprinted with the kind permission of The Catholic University of America Press. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.